I am looking at the Facebook page of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. Gulsumoy writes about how she misses her mother, how she has the flu, how happy she is that Eid has arrived. She is from Andijon, Uzbekistan, but now she lives in Munich, Germany. She writes, “Qayerda bo’lsam ham Qalbim sendadur Vatanim” – “Wherever I am, my heart is in my homeland”, and writes it again in English and German for good measure. Gulsumoy is interested in Uzbek dissident causes. She reposts articles about corruption in the government from Radio Free Europe and posts links to Uzbek dissident websites. Like everyone else on Facebook, Gulsumoy’s “likes” are publicly proclaimed: The Hadith, the Qur’an, the Uzbekistan People’s Movement. Like many Uzbeks, she has left her Facebook profile on its default public setting, which is how I am able to read it, after she died.
On December 4, 2011, Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, a 32-year-old university student, killed herself after being interrogated by the national security services of Uzbekistan for four days. She had returned to Uzbekistan for a vacation but was taken in for questioning due to her links to dissidents abroad. While in custody, Gulsumoy was tortured. The police told her that unless she complied with their demands, they would go after her family in Uzbekistan. According to some reports, they asked her to carry out a plot to murder Uzbekistan People’s Movement leader Muhammad Salih, who is in exile in Europe.
Gulsumoy left a suicide note saying she would rather die than harm another person.
Why did the Uzbek police single out Gulsumoy? This question has baffled members of the Uzbek opposition. Gulsumoy was not an ardent activist, or even a member of the Uzbekistan People’s Movement. Dissident Hazratqul Xudoyberdi told Ferghana.ru: “I met Gulsumoy on Facebook. And I just can’t understand the logic guiding policemen of the Andijon department of interior where she was kept and tortured for four days. Why? Just because she had met some of our compatriots living abroad on Facebook?”
Now let me be clear. Facebook doesn’t kill people; the national security services of Uzbekistan do. But Gulsumoy’s Facebook page was, according to most reports, the only thing linking her to Uzbek dissident causes. By joining Facebook and interacting with Uzbek dissidents online, Gulsumoy was able to participate in a political world completely closed to her in Uzbekistan. By sharing links from Uzbek dissident websites, Gulsumoy was able to inform her friends about events that the Uzbek government would rather keep secret. (Much like Uzbeks are doing now by posting about the death of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova.) By doing this on Facebook, she made herself a government target.
As a religious Muslim from Andijon living abroad in Germany, Gulsumoy very well might have been interrogated whether or not her Facebook profile had proclaimed her dissident leanings. One of the world’s greatest surveillance states hardly needs Facebook to be functional. But Facebook made her leanings concrete, categorized, and damning in a way they might not have been otherwise. Gulsumoy posted under a pseudonym, but it was easy to ascertain her real identity. When you have enemies of the state on your friends list, the government will notice. The fact that her profile is public – which is what happened to so many dissidents after Facebook changed its privacy settings – allows anyone to look into her world. Even me. Even the Uzbek government.
A Facebook profile is not a person. I did not know Gulsumoy, and part of me feels uncomfortable piecing together her life through stray posts and comments. It feels dehumanizing to piece together fragments of a life shattered in such a horrifying way. But that is precisely the point. Fragments are evidence in Uzbekistan. This is no different on the ground, where dissident and Islamic leaflets are routinely cited (or planted) as means for arrest. But on Facebook, stray thoughts and loose leanings become permanent. They are harvested for insight, and evidence.
“The day is coming soon – soon, the PEOPLE will be free,” Gulsumoy wrote on October 3. What prompted her to write this? We will never know – but the very fact that she did likely helped ensure she would never see that day arrive.